100 Creatives 2012: J.J. Johnston

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J.J. Johnston has come a long way since he first saw his best friend in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in the seventh grade. Nothing like that would appeal to him now, but back then, Johnston thought it was incredible. Twenty years later, he remains in the art world, but instead is focused on his position as founder and Executive Artistic Director at the Classical Theatre Company. CTC is currently in its fourth season and, being the only theater company that produces year-round classical drama, is getting ready for some even bigger changes under the leadership of Johnston.​

A fan of clarity and crispness in his work and performances, Johnston takes the company's slogan ("Boldly Re-Envisioning Classical Drama") to heart. He adds unique flairs to his productions, such as sprinkles of political or social commentary, to make them even more relevant and poignant. The company and Johnston's personal goal is not to re-create something that most people already know, but instead is to bring forth a never-before-seen quality to the plays while also creating a connection between the actors and the audience.

What he does: In four seasons consisting of ten productions, Johnston has developed the third-highest-paying theater company in Houston. As a Houston native, he has worked on local, national and international levels.

Classical Theatre Company's latest production, Uncle Vanya, just closed January 22, and Johnston is getting ready to direct their next show, The Tempest.

"I personally direct one each year out of three productions, and I'm also personally involved in the casting process and the play selection. I try to make sure that the artists that we bring all fill the vision that I'm trying to bring to life."

For Johnston, it's all about bringing the stories to the people and connecting with the audience. He believes that though there is the common fear that theater is dying, it is still an irreplaceable art.

"The best analogy that I frequently give is that you can have your favorite album of your favorite recording artist or music group and love all the songs on it, but you'll still go see the live performance when they come to town. It's because it's there, it's live, it's immediate, and that's just something that just can't be replaced."

What inspires him: Johnston returned to Houston after studying on the East Coast and saw a need for classical theater to be available in the city.

"For being the fourth-largest city in the country, there wasn't a great deal of theater available for professional actors. I set forth and saw a need and I felt like there was a niche that could be filled. The classics are kind of a no-brainer when it comes to production for a variety of reasons: For one, scripts are typically in the public domain so you don't have to deal with rights, but they are also the most popular and most produced plays in the world."

As a director, Johnston is inspired by visual artists and styles. He's directed shows that have expressionist or surrealist themes, and through the inspiration from visual art, it gives him a jumping-off point to somehow create a feel for his shows.

"It's important when dealing with classics which get so frequently set on a pedestal or placed under glass and shouldn't be touched. I feel that the barrier needs to be broken down because our common perception of the classics is that they're difficult to understand, the language heightened, and by making it more intimate and making it more visceral is the key element to making the classics accessible, enjoyable and entertaining. Regardless of the type of play it is, the most important thing is that your audience must be entertained. And entertaining doesn't necessarily mean laughing, it means caring. So that's my goal."

If not this, then what? As a professor of Arts Administration at the University of Houston - Downtown, Johnston also has a passion for teaching, especially at the collegiate level, and believes that since there aren't many opportunities that teach fine arts management, it's an area that can be further developed.

"I think it's important to teach, I think theater should teach. I think whether it's a Neil Simon play or a piece of Shakespeare, an audience member should walk out of the theater being changed somehow, informed, enlightened, taught something, something about themselves if nothing else."

If not here, then where? Although Johnston had originally been working on the East Coast, Johnston's mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and so he returned to his hometown to help out. However, this unanticipated homecoming made Johnston realize that Houston had a need for a year-round cultural landscape in the form of classical theater.

"For about the last four years in Houston, I've been pretty well grounded here. I grew up here, my family moved to Texas when I was four. I think I've done my moving. I've lived in several places now and although I like all the places I've been for different reasons, I really feel like Houston is a place where an individual can make a difference in whatever their field is."

What's next? Classical Theatre Company's final production of the season, The Tempest, opens April 12 and runs until April 29 and is directed by Johnston. Though CTC is still a relatively young company, it will transfer to its own space at Studio 101 at Spring Street Studios, sharing with other prestigious companies such as Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company and Stark Naked Theatre.

More Creatives for 2012
(In order of most recently published; click here for the full page).

Mary Margaret Hansen, artist
Richard Tallent, photographer
Viswa Subbaraman, opera director
Emily Sloan, sculptor and performance artist
Sonja Roesch, gallery owner
Enrique Carreón-Robledo, conductor
Sandy Ewen, musician
Camella Clements, puppeteer

Wade Wilson, gallery owner

Magid Salmi, photographer
Carl Williams, playwright


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